As Lewis Carroll once wrote,”Who in the world am I? Ah…that’s the great question.”

Like Alice, we are always trying to understand and define ourselves. We may know who we are in the morning and change several times by afternoon. Similarly, when I started out I was sure I believed that grit was a measurable outcome of success, but I have since developed a more nuanced opinion.

Cursory research can pull you down the metaphorical rabbit hole: Articles and studies, speculation about correlation, never-ending opinion and analysis paralysis—and then, like Alice, faced with riddles you didn’t intend to confront.


So, is “grit” a four-letter word?

Who on earth could argue against grit being an important part of a student’s skill set? After all, it’s a fine quality in a person: The ability to persevere when faced with obstacles is admirable and necessary. Alice had grit. It takes a lot of wherewithal to fight back against the Queen. But, can measuring grit be detrimental to student development?

Opponents of grit claim that the initiative perpetuates gaps in the very skills it aims to build. Some complain that weighting grit creates an unfair measurement, where the result means judging children on intangibles—those non-cognitive skills that can’t be easily or consistently measured.

Grit, it can be argued, doesn’t account for environmental factors that affect the grading curve. There are even arguments over the meaning of the word grit itself.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Opponents and supports of grit agree on a few things. For example:

  • We need to support and encourage students, knowing that they’re all at different places on the scale of need.
  • Persistence, courage and fortitude are generally Good Things.
  • And, some students suffer disadvantages that make their journey harder.

But hasn’t this always been the case with…well, everything? Nothing is equal, nothing is fair (or if it is, give it a minute and the scales will invariably tip). Humans have always had to compensate for circumstance and push through difficulties to achieve personal progress.

Believing is Everything

We turn again, to Alice, who has a lot to teach us about confidently finding our way through ever-changing chaos. Or, as she says, “Sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

The meaning of the word “grit” is changes depending on the disposition of the listener. When we say it, we do so because we want students to achieve personal growth because it’s good for them, not because we want to measure them against each other. But then, what others hear is that if students aren’t successful at grit, they must not be trying hard enough.

For example, one person can be described by different people as determined or strict, genius or crazy. We get to choose. We owe it to our children to say and hear words that are positive when we are supporting them. Whether that means grit, persistence, or fortitude. The bottom line is that they need encouragement, and they don’t care what you call it.

Grit is whatever they believe it is.

Let’s stop arguing about who gets to pick the word we use to describe developing positive character traits in our kids. Let’s teach them that there’s no word that means their history has to be their future, because they have the power to define themselves. As Alice learned—from some very wise or very mad friends, depending on how you choose to see them—in the struggle to answer the great puzzle of who we are, imagination is our strongest weapon.

And, in the end, it was perseverance—grit—that got Alice home.

2 thoughts on “Can You Measure ‘Grit’ in Education?”

  1. Grit! My colleague, Amy Lyon, did her dissertation on grit and elementary school children. Now Amy and I are part of a team which is looking at grit and college students. I agree that the concept of measuring grit is problematic (the impression that someone doesn’t have it, wasn’t trying enough…). But it can’t hurt to teach children and college students about grit and how they can use it (like a superpower!) to achieve goals. Amy uses the definition “passion and perseverance toward long-term goals.” I like that – it’s not static – it is a skill you can use and develop. Thank you for this reflection!

    1. Thanks Kim for the thoughtful response. Completely agree. If we can come up with ways to make that kind of “soft” teaching easier without swinging the pendulum too far into “crazy measurement” land I think we’ll be in a good place!

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